Abe Confronts Wider Islamic State Threat After Hostage Murders

Islamic State’s warning to Japan after beheading two of its citizens met with tough words from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is moving to bolster his country’s ability to defend itself.

As Japanese people took to social media to mourn the murder of journalist Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa, Abe spoke Sunday of his anger, saying in a statement “I am infuriated by these inhumane and despicable acts of terrorism” and adding “I will never forgive these terrorists.” Japan would work with other countries to make terrorists atone for their crimes while protecting its people, he said.

Abe faces a delicate task as he seeks to ease Japan into a larger role in global security, in a policy known as “proactive pacifism.” With Islamic State warning Japan is a target, he will need to avoid a backlash domestically from the killings in a society that has long cherished its pacifism.

“Abe has to be conscious of domestic political challenges,” said Peter Jennings, executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra. “There seems to be some doubt in the public mind about supporting a more engaged role,” he said. “How the Japanese react to these two unfortunate deaths is going to lead back to the issue of the foreign and security policy Abe is trying to promote.”

In a video purporting to show Goto dead, a masked man said Abe’s decision to take part in “an unwinnable war” made Japan a target for the jihadist group. He threatened “carnage wherever your people are found” and warned of a “nightmare for Japan.”

‘Only Way’

Speaking at the start of a meeting of ruling parties Monday in Tokyo, Abe said Japan would not “cave in” to terrorists, and would increase humanitarian aid to the Middle East. “We take a firm stance on Japan’s responsibility to the international community in its fight against terrorism,” he said. “This is the only way to stand up to terrorism.”

Since coming to office Abe has increased military spending, removed a ban on defense exports and reinterpreted the U.S.- imposed pacifist constitution to let Japan defend other countries. He must now protect Japanese citizens from the unaccustomed threat of global terrorism, and may seek further powers for the country’s defense forces.

“He will no doubt repeat his argument that greater military might will protect Japanese lives better,” said Koichi Nakano, a professor of politics at Sophia University in Tokyo. “He will try to take advantage of the situation” to push his changes, Nakano added.

The government is expected to present a package of more than 10 bills to parliament around April to enshrine the new interpretation of the constitution. Abe requires support from his pacifist coalition partner, Komeito, to get the bills through the upper house, where his Liberal Democratic Party is just shy of a majority.

Parliament Debate

A poll published by Kyodo News after Yukawa’s murder showed opposition to the bills had risen to about 21 percent, the same proportion who approve of them. About half of the 814 respondents said time should be taken to debate the changes.

The process in parliament may become more contentious following the hostage crisis. The cabinet resolution on the constitution prompted demonstrations outside Abe’s official residence in July and a poll conducted by Nippon TV Jan. 16-18 found almost 54 percent of respondents did not believe the changes would contribute to peace.

Islamic State said in a previous video its threats against Goto and Yukawa were prompted by Abe’s speech in Cairo last month, in which he pledged $200 million in humanitarian aid for countries confronting the group. Nevertheless, Kyodo’s January poll showed Abe’s support was down only slightly on the previous month to 52.8 percent, and more than 60 percent of respondents approved of his handling of the crisis.

Tighter Security

Japan will step up efforts to prevent terrorists from entering the country, beef up security at airports and key facilities and request tougher security measures for Japanese schools overseas, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said.

While Suga said he was not aware of any other Japanese citizens held by Islamic State, the Foreign Ministry has issued three advisories urging reporters to avoid the border between Turkey and Syria given the danger posed by the group.

“The threat is not as high as for countries like France,” said Romain Quivooij, a counter-terrorism analyst at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “It’s very difficult to target Japan for logistics reasons. ISIS has local enemies such as rival armed groups and the Kurds in Syria and in Iraq. As such Japan is clearly not a strategic priority.”

Own Citizens

The crisis has highlighted the fact Japan is not legally able to send troops to rescue its own citizens held hostage. Asked about this on broadcaster NHK, LDP Secretary-General Sadakazu Tanigaki said discussion was needed about how to fill such “gaps” in security policy. Abe told parliament last week the military should be allowed to conduct a rescue.

Some commentators said they were taken aback by the strength of Abe’s remarks on making the hostage-takers pay for their actions, given the curbs on Japan’s military. Suga said there was no possibility of Japan cooperating with bombing campaigns against Islamic State or providing logistical support for such campaigns.

“He said he would not forgive,” independent political analyst Minoru Morita said by phone, referring to Abe. “He used pretty strong language. This will be a great turning point for Japan’s foreign and defense policy.”

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